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ROSS RIFLES VS. LONG BRANCH LEES: CANADIAN SERVICE RIFLES

Of all the rifles extant in Canada, few are as quintessentially Canadian as the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk I* or the the Ross Mk III – M1910. On many levels, the rifles couldn’t be further separated by virtue of their bolt design, their service records, or their reputations – be it myth or legend. But regardless of what may be true, it is very interesting how the history of these rifles is so intermixed; mutually sharing a Canadian flavour few other small arms share.

The SMLE is well regarded as one of the best bolt action military rifles in history, arguably the best, and this isn’t without merit. The fact that it, fundamentally speaking, is nearly unchanged since its inception in 1907 and remains in service with the Canadian Forces should be as good an indicator as any. On the opposite end of the coin, the Ross is best remembered as a poor rifle which, deservedly so, had a very short service life with the Canadian Army and domestic police forces alike. If rumours serve true, the bet would be hedged on it exploding in your face, assuming a miniscule amount of dirt hadn’t jammed the weapon.

A Shared History

In 1836, James Paris Lee imm          igrated to Canada where his family settled in present day Cambridge, Ontario. Perhaps more socially acceptable a hobby for children in those days, Lee hand crafted his first functioning gun using the most rudimentary of supplies by his his 13th birthday. Though the gun didn’t particularly work well when fired, his avid interest in such was firmly seeded and so began his life’s work as an arms designer. Having mastered his craft in Canada, Lee moved his young family to our neighbours South of the border and quickly gained notoriety as a gunsmith with successful designs.

More so than any other, perhaps his greatest contribution to small arms design was his spring-fed column magazine system for centre fire cartridges, simply known now as the box magazine. This was complimented by charger bridges that worked in concert with his bolt system to allow for single cartridge reloading or the use of stripper clips to quickly charge the magazine. Mutually beneficial was the magazine’s ability to be detached from the receiver and so became what would be Lee’s 1879 rifle, in which both his innovative designs would be realized in the world’s first magazine-fed rifle.

The British took notice of the successful design and combined Lee’s rear locking bolt system and eight round stacked magazine system with that of the barrel design of William Ellis Metford to create the Lee Metford Rifle. While the Lee Metford was relatively short lived, it evolved and saw the eight cartridge magazine expanded to hold ten cartridges in a staggered column, as well as the use of a new sight system and safety device. Before long, the “Long Lee” Lee-Enfield was born and would essentially become the Lee Metford’s smokeless powder variation.

Around this time, another Scotsman who immigrated to Canada, Sir Charles Ross, was looking for an opportunity to sell his unique rifle to the Canadian government. Being the well connected guy that he was, it didn’t take long before the government placed an order for 12,000 examples of the Ross Mk I (M1903) in 1903; just a year after Ross’ factory in Quebec City had gone into manufacturing the innovative gun. Having previously produced sporting and target rifles in Connecticut, Sir Ross would utilize his brand new, purpose built factory to manufacture his rifles. The first batch of 1,000 were manufactured and sent to the NWMP and agents of the military for preliminary testing where they, unsurprisingly, discovered several issues. 113 complaints and a maimed Mountie later (be it his fault or not as to the bolt blow out, we’ll never know), those Mk I’s with the NWMP were ordered into stores and the Mounties reverted back to their mix of Winchesters, Metfords, and the limited number of Long Lees tied up in the North West.

Unfazed by this revelation, Ross redeveloped the rifle to correct the faults and came back to the table with the Ross Mk II (M1905). In 1909, the first of the Mk II Ross Rifles arrived in Regina and, where they were kept in stores by the Mounties until their reliability could be ascertained. But as luck would have it, of the 1,000 rifles sent, all but 34 were lost in a fire in 1912 before the scheduled reliability testing took place. However, while Ross’ career in supplying firearms to domestic law enforcement came to a pitiful, crispy end, evaluations by the Canadian military further identified issues with the Mk II – albeit slight problems. When added up, they still made for what they considered an average rifle at best and, though devoid of the safety issues of its Mk I predecessor, the army eventually elected to pass on it.

But no one can accuse Sir Ross of giving in, so the valiant Scot gave it another go and overhauled the rifle completely. This time, he got it right (mostly) and created the Ross Mk III (M1910), and for his efforts, was afforded a procurement contract for the looming First World War. Obviously, military officials hoped the new rifle would be a success, but with hindsight being what is it, most any Canadian shooter should know of the Ross’ performance record in Flanders and what that foretold for the Ross’ future. While its reputation for unreliability isn’t entirely warranted, it is no myth that the Mk III was ill suited for the task at hand in the trenches of Ypres with its omnipresent mud and debris, and was not assisted in its task by the ammunition of the day. It’s been said it took five men to keep one Ross firing – probably not the best scenario when faced with the uncertain task of stopping a regiment of Wilhelm II’s men charging your way. Soon, Canadians began ‘liberating’ the then developed SMLE Mk III from British casualties before the Ross’ full replacement was ordered by Sir Douglas Haig.

With that, the Ross Mk III’s service life ended in 1916 and the Ross Rifle Company collapsed with it, seeing the factory expropriated in 1917. Despite an effort to retool the factory, it eventually ceased production and by 1931, all of its buildings had been demolished for the construction of a water reservoir. Today, the land where this all once stood is now the Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park, under the National Battlefields Commission.

From that point forward, the SMLE Mk III (later the No. 1 Mk III as renamed in 1926 by the British) would serve as the main battle rifle of the Canadian Army until its adoption of the ever so mildly upgraded No. 4 Mk I in 1943. Prior to this, Canada was faced with the dilemma of not only arming its rapidly growing army to face the Nazi threat in Europe, but to send as many service rifles as was possible to the UK. A proposal was made in earnest for a domestic small arms production facility to meet the demands of the war effort and, unlike some thirty years prior, on June 6th, 1940 the Ordnance Branch of the Department of National Defence received its approval. This facility was chosen to be built on land in Long Branch, Ontario and so became the fame Small Arms Ltd (Long Branch Arsenal).

Within ten months, the plant was fully constructed and operational and was anxiously watching its first batches of a slightly modified No. 4 Mk I variant already undergo endurance testing: The No. 4 Mk I*. After the new model passed with flying colours (in a single attempt, much to Sir Ross’ chagrin, no doubt), production was ordered for 4,000 rifles per month, soon increasing production capacities to reach the new demand for 25,000 rifles per month and later 32,500. Even more impressive was the plant also found time to churn out 2,500 Sten Mk II sub-machine guns, not to mention a run of .22 training rifles and sniper designated Mk I* (T) rifles.

Following the war, the inevitable restructuring of the war production facilities, eventually seeing most of the Long Branch Arsenal’s manufacturing equipment removed for disposal with a few exceptions. The staff was downsized to just 200 personnel to continue arms productions in support of the Canadian Army under the factory’s new designation as the Small Arms Division of Canadian Arsenals Ltd. This operation manufactured components for the C1, Brown Hi Power, and C1A1. However by 1974 production of those components ended and the factory closed forever. All that remains today is the number 12 building where product inspections were conducted; a site which has been charitably preserved as a Heritage Building by the City of Mississauga.

The Lee-Enfields of Long Branch

If you’ve shot a SMLE, you’ll know why we here at Calibre love this rifle. Much like the barrel serves to distinguish the modern C7, the Lee’s bolt design sets it apart as one of the best rifles of its time. Recognizing that the volume of fire would prove a massive advantage on the modern battlefield, Lee achieved this in several ways with his unique bolt; by having mounted the lugs to the rear, he brought the operating handle closer to the shooter and allowed for faster cycling of the action in concert with the bolt’s much shorter travel. Not stopping there, Lee made it so the operating handle only had to be rotated 60 degrees (as compared to 90 degrees in the Mauser action), further reducing the time to cycle the action. His final departure from conventional design was his approach to cocking the weapon – doing so when pushed forward toward the breech as opposed to when travelling rearward.

All in all, this well laid out action was smooth as butter and could be cycled faster than anything in its day and for many years to come. This paved the way for the training standard of the professional British soldier known as the mad minute – a practice of firing, while reloading using stripper clips, to achieve a minimum of 15 hits on a 12” target at 300 yards in under one minute. The record was set by Sergeant Instructor Alfred Snoxall at 38 – a feat many would struggle to achieve with a modern semi-automatic rifle. Although to be honest, there is some debate about the legitimacy of Sergeant Snoxall’s feat.

The rifles manufactured at the Long Branch Arsenal specifically were restricted to the aforementioned variants of the No. 4 Mk I* rifles. These rifles were largely unchanged from the standard No. 4 Mk I design, but replaced the more complex bolt catch design with a simpler notch in the bolt track, which in turn allowed for slightly faster production and the conservation of valuable steel. Interestingly, although this remained the only version of the No. 4 Mk I* design to be manufactured at Long Branch, it wasn’t exclusive to the Canadian factory; Savage-Stevens produced a huge quantity of the same rifle as part of the Lend-Lease program to support the English fighting effort. But the traditional No. 4 Mk I* wasn’t Long Branch’s only contribution to the war effort.

While Long Branch’s largest export was the standard-issue No. 4 Mk I*, they also produced the highly desirable and incredibly well-regarded No. 4 Mk I*(T). Standing for “telescopic,” these rifles were hand-selected and accurized to be the absolute best rifles Long Branch was capable of assembling. The standard by which these rifles were expected to meet was to place seven out of seven shots into a 5″ round target at 200 yards with standard issue ammunition. These rifles would be heavily modified, with a wooden cheekpiece screwed into the rifle’s comb with brass screws, and the rear sight ground off to make room for the telescopic sight. Long Branch’s rifles came fitted with various optics throughout the factory’s short history producing the sniper rifles. In 1943, all came with C No. 32 Mk 2 optics produced by the Canadian firm Research Enterprises Ltd, but a shortage of optics in 1944 meant some came with the REL C No. 32 Mk 3, others with civilian Lyman Alaskan scopes, and some even with REL C No. 67 Mk 1 optics. The final batch produced during the way in 1945 came with REL C No. 32 Mk 3 scopes. However, regardless of what type of optic was fitted, all scopes were serialized to their specific rifle.

Also interesting is that, while nearly all other manufacturers in the commonwealth marked their sniper rifles with the “T” designation on the sidewall, Long Branch’s first production run in 1943 was issued without the designation, leaving many optimistic Canadian collectors thinking that perhaps their rifles is one of the elusive non-marked sniper rifles. But the sad reality is that, in all likelihood, they aren’t. Just how rare are the Long Branch sniper rifles? Well, over a production run of nearly 230,000 rifles in 1943, just 71 were selected to become “T” models. Over the course of the factory’s production, just 1,588 sniper rifles were produced, and REL never made more than 400 of any particular mark.

The final version of the Lee-Enfield produced at Long Branch was the C No. 7 rifle; a .22 single-shot rifle produced at Long Branch for military training. Although retaining many of the Lee-Enfield controls and handling characteristics, the single shot No. 7 was little-used during the war as the brevity of wartime training meant recruits were rushed into shooting the full-house .303 British round. They had The Hun to fight, and they weren’t going to do it with a rimfire rifle!

Ross’ Dastardly Design

Throughout the evolution of the bolt systems of each Ross variant, at the essence of Ross’ design was that of an artillery piece, believe it or not. Unlike the Mauser or Lee actions, the shooter doesn’t have to rotate the bolt to cycle the action, and instead simply pulls the bolt handle rearward and forward along a track. This rotated a screw, which locked and unlocked the action to complete the extraction process and to chamber a new cartridge. Given his work prior was restricted to civilian sporting rifles, the bolt design was made to exceedingly tight tolerances and proved to eventually be one of, if not the strongest bolt actions for its time thanks to its multiple locking lugs (a design that’s not much unlike that of a modern Weatherby!). The thinking of the day was that this simplified manual of arms would result in a rifle that could be cycled faster and in turn fired faster.

While the smaller capacity five cartridge magazines (internal on the Mk I & II and external on the Mk III) may negate this alleged speed advantage over the SMLE, it did enjoy a significant advantage over the SMLE in that it could be disassembled much easier without the need for specific tools and, in comparison to the Long Lee, was a full pound lighter. When compared to the SMLE, it was a different story and was actually nearly a full pound heavier at 9.5lbs thanks to its being a full eight inches longer at 52” (50.25” in Mk III) and the barrel itself being nearly three inches longer at 28” with a similar 1:10” twist rate (30.5” in Mk III).

Also shooting the .303 British, the Ross shared similar bullet performance to that of the SMLE. When combined with the higher quality ammunition of the Dominion Arsenal (previously Quebec City Arsenal and later moved to Valcartier), the tighter tolerances allowed the Ross to be more accurate at greater distances. It is due to this fact that snipers, particularly Canadians, often chose to keep their Ross. The ability to be selective with their ammunition and limit exposure to the muck made for a successful sniper rifle even in wake of the dismal failure otherwise.

Battlefield Failure

For whatever reason, it seems that the Mk III is shrouded in this reputation for being unreliable and liable to take your face off thanks to an exploding bolt assembly. While this accurately describes the locking lug issues first experienced with the Mk I, and to some degree the slightly lesser shortcomings of the Mk II, the notion that a Ross rifle is liable to explode does not apply to the Mk III. As mentioned, the bolt assembly of the Mk I & II are completely different to that of the Mk III and they are not interchangeable. In terms of the exploding bolt, this occurrence should mostly be laid at the feet of the Mk I rifle, and was an issue that was largely corrected when Ross created the Mk II. In a nut shell, if you’re looking at a Mk II and are worried it might explode into your face, worry not. The sheer amount of force it might take to incorrectly assemble the bolt and create the condition for such risk is quite considerable. If you feel veins popping on your forehead while assembling the bolt assembly or while chambering a round, take it as an indication that you’re probably doing it wrong.

That said, the Mk III was a complete overhaul and its new fielding stripping process did made it somewhat easier to assembly the bolt incorrectly. Remember, these were straight-pull rifles with separate bolt bodies and heads, and it was possible to assembly a Mk III bolt in such a way that the rifle would feed and chamber a round with the bolt head installed incorrectly and thus engaging the wrong locking lugs. Though many saw the installation of a riveted bolt sleeve applied to correct this issue of over rotating the bolt head during assembling, it is possible to locate examples of Mk III’s who haven’t received this corrective measure. If you’re concerned you may have inadvertently assembled the bolt assembly incorrectly, there is a easy way to verify such. With the action opened, you should be able to see approximately 1” of the bolt exposed from the bolt sleeve. If very little of the bolt is exposed, then it’s assembled incorrectly. Another symptom of incorrect assembly will be the positioning of the front right locking lug. If assembled correctly, it should be visibly rotating as the action locks up, whereas an incorrect assembly will force the lug to sit vertically.

One of the other major issues with the Ross was with Sir Ross’ own background: as a firearm manufacturer that had acquitted himself well in the sporting and target markets, he was ill-prepared to design a rifle that would see battlefield conditions. While the tight tolerances required for his design was prone to failure in the mud-laden battlefields of the first world war, his rifles were also unprepared to ingest the various sorts of ammunition that passed for “.303 British” at the time. Almost two decades before the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute would stringently standardize ammunition dimensions, what one country called .303 British would not be exactly the same as another country’s rendition on the theme. As a result, Ross’ rifles were built around the excellent and very consistent .303 British ammunition produced by the Canadian ammunition plant at Valcartier, but choked on the less consistent forms of .303 British produced by other nations. With differing case dimensions, differing projectiles, and differing pressure curves that may have even varied lot-to-lot, it didn’t take long for those few that appreciated the accuracy of their Ross rifles to understand the importance of procuring quality ammunition. As such, rumours abound of Canadian snipers procuring cases of “Green Dot” or “Greenspot” ammunition (so named for the green markings on the crates) to ensure maximum accuracy, as this particular ammunition was the most consistent produced as it may be fired out of synchronized machine guns firing through a rapidly turning propeller.

A Basic Buyer’s Guide

Like any bolt action rifle, there are a number of things a potential buyer needs to look for when inspecting a used firearm. When doing so with rifles that will most likely be hovering between 60 and 100 years of age, it becomes all the more important.

The basics? There a few such as verifying the bedding of the barrel, that the action is smooth, rust free, devoid of any markings which might indicate binding, and the assembly of the rifle is taut. When looking into the barrel, it should ideally be bright and free of bulging – no matter how subtle the bulge may be. Pay careful attention to the bolt face, especially on a Lee-Enfield, and ensure it’s free of erosion and that the firing pin hole is clear. As mentioned, the wear and tear on these can be an issue which lends to complications with head spacing. One last area of concern should be examining the locking lugs and ensuring they’re not overly worn down. In addition, you should look to ensure that each are worn down relatively evenly to make sure the action is true.

Otherwise, when checking over the market, the first thing you should keep in mind is the wide spread “sporterizing” of the wooden stock – an act which we think is almost criminal; but hey, to each their own. Many examples bought from surplus stores in decades past saw large portions of the fore-stock cut off in order to lighten the gun and free-float the barrel for hunting. If you’re into that, buying one with this already done will save you money and they’ll be somewhat easier to locate… not to mention you won’t draw the ire of those of us that think it’s a shame to hack up a veteran. Often, people who do so also refinish the stocks and the quality of the wood will have some effect on the price, and we often see sporterized SMLE’s sit around $250-500 based on mechanical condition. It also opens the door for the lenient ‘purist’ on a budget as it is possible to buy replacement furniture and the necessary parts to restore the rifle to its original appearance.

For the historical purists, full and original furniture and accessories will push the price up on both Ross and Long Branch rifles. When inspecting them, look for signs of cracks or splits, as that can ruin a stock and relegate a gun to display purposes only. Sections of stocks being replaced with new wood and refinished aren’t entirely rare, and as such, will effect price. In Canada, it isn’t unusual to see these original condition rifles go for between $1000-1250, especially when stamps are present and match across the rifle – at a price which will only increase. The inclusion of more accessories such as bayonets, scabbards, and frequently misplaced parts like volley sights can drive the price up farther, especially if the accessories are serialized and correct for the rifle. As for those Long Branch snipers, well, as they say if you have to ask…

 

Conclusion

So do you want one? Or both? If you ask us, the answer should be both – and in their beautiful original furniture. And why not? It doesn’t get much more Canadian than any of the Ross rifles and the Long Branch No. 4 Mk I* SMLE; or much cooler given their intertwined, historical presence in the lexicon of our nation’s firearm history.

In its intended purpose as a sporting or target rifle, the Ross Mk III is excellent. Keep it clean, keep it maintained, and keep it as a piece of real Canadian history. And be careful how to put it together. As for the SMLE, it’s been around forever. By the end of its service life, it will have served in our armed forces over 125 years as the Canadian Rangers seem to be nearing their SMLE inspired 7.62 NATO replacement. What more could you possibly need to know? It’s tough, it’s reliable, and won a victory for many a Commonwealth soldier in several conflicts, and has even been found in several modern conflict zones like Afghanistan. And despite the somewhat questionable attempts at a Canadian-made service rifle we may have made initially with the Ross, we made a whole bunch of Lee’s right here in Canada at the Long Branch Arsenal in Ontario, and they were a damned good bunch at that.

 

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